I seldom write two blogs in less than a month, but after my last blog on the summit with Biden and Putin we now come to the fiftieth anniversary of the “release” (I use that word loosely) of the Pentagon Papers. Sadly, one of the key players in that saga, Michael Gravel, passed away last week at the age of 91. So this blog is not directly related to life in Russia, but it seemed fitting to honor him in the only small way I know how.
WHAT WERE THE PENTAGON PAPERS? Given this event was 50 years ago I realize many readers may have never even heard of them and other folks in my generation may have forgotten a lot about them or did not see the significance of them at the time. The Pentagon Papers were over 4,000 pages describing the results of a massive government study of the Vietnam War in which the U.S. had been officially involved since 1954.
Most of us were able to read only a few excerpts from the papers. According to “insiders” who did, however, all aspects of the war and the political issues surrounding it were included. Everything from how each president had maneuvered around public opinion and press reports to mundane statistics from the field were there to read.
The study was top secret. It was sealed with two sets of secret codes. Politicians and other government officials who were permitted to read it were not allowed to be accompanied by aides in the special room reserved for reading the documents. No one was allowed to take notes on what they read.
The main conclusion of the report later became widely known, however, and proved to be the most controversial aspect of the papers. The authors of the study concluded that the war in Vietnam would never result in a victory for the U.S. There was no way America would win this war. Nevertheless, they directed the war should continue.
I am not privy to why they concluded the war could not be won. I only know what I read in various publications around that time and my personal conversations in the early 1970s with fellow U.S. Marines who had been there. The enemy was “squishy,” they said. They were never organized in a manner expected for conventional warfare. They struck from the bush in small groups and quickly disappeared either back into the bush or into one of the small villages. One often could not tell who was a combatant and who was just a poor resident. They recounted other difficulties in trying to fight an elusive opponent. Additionally, they said directives from their U.S. superiors were often unclear and confusing. I’m sure the report went over the far more complicating factors. The point was the authors of this study knew the U.S. could not win against this seemingly small opponent. Yet they insisted the war must go on.
Again, I don’t know all the details as to why continuing was imperative, but at stake was a lot of money, power, and pride at high levels. I think the majority of folks would agree that President Eisenhower’s warnings in his farewell speech in January of 1961 “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex” were to a large degree shaped by what he had already seen happening with Vietnam. I am one of a multitude of cynics who believe a lot of money was being made from this war by weapons sales, and those companies were rewarding certain politicians with hefty campaign contributions.
Another factor for continuing the war was the pride and insecurity of Washington politicians. In a recent article Paul Robinson refers to Lyndon B. Johnson’s biographer Doris Kearns’ quote of Johnson when asked about why he continued the war in Vietnam: “If I left that way and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine.” So to keep Johnson’s masculinity intact young American men had to keep on dying in Vietnam. https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2021/06/27/brits-in-crimea-scared-of-looking-scared/?fbclid=IwAR3imXuwliyaOSP947NyBXs4iF47JnZg_ErNU7PV_Q2ZN_q8p7prNRHwZ1g. (Women were not permitted in combat roles at the time, by the way.)
I wrote in another blog that I think what I was told in 1971 in class by my high school social studies/history teacher was the standard line D.C. politicians wanted us all to believe. According to her we had to keep fighting in Vietnam because if the Communists won there, they would get a foothold in Asia and could perhaps then take over the world. I believed her. Of course, after U.S. troops left, Vietnam did in fact become one country, which is communist. I have not checked since the pandemic, but the last time I looked into it, Vietnam had a much stronger economy than when the Americans were present. And the Communists did not take over the world.
DANIEL ELLSBERG. The name most frequently associated with the Pentagon Papers becoming widely known is Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg was a member of the commision that did the study and wrote the papers. He was disgusted with the conclusions I mentioned above. He leaked the contents to the New York Times, which promptly published some excerpts. The Nixon administration moved quickly and got the publication of the excerpts stopped. Ellsberg then leaked the papers to The Washington Post, which also published excerpts. They were also stopped as were a few more papers to whom Ellsberg leaked the contents.
While the issue of the legality of the publication of the excerpts was tied up in court, Ellsberg sought to find a politician who would get the papers made public somehow. At first George McGovern, who planned to run for president the next year, indicated he would do so. After seeking counsel from his chief advisor he refused, however. It was too dangerous to his political future. Eventually Ellsberg was able to find someone who detested the conclusions of the report and who was not afaid to take the risk of revealing them. Senator Mike Gravel was the man.
MIKE GRAVEL was a first term senator from Alaska. Gravel said he thought probably every Senator thinks at least for a short term about what it would be like to be president. After reviewing the contents of the papers, he knew if he got them released he likely would never become president. It would be worth it, however. The American public needed to know.
He told fellow Senator Alan Cranston, “We as leaders are killing innocent people (and) it does not add to our national security.” He added, “The people of the United States have not lost confidence in the leadership of the nation, but the leaders have lost confidence in the people.” He said he believed when the leaders run the country by keeping the people either uninformed or misinformed about what they are doing and why they are doing it, there is no democracy.
(Caveat: Gravel did try to become the Democratic nominee for president in 2008 against Clinton and Biden, but by then the Democratic Party had joined hands with the pro-war neocon Republicans, and he never came close to getting nominated. He even tried again in 2020.)
Gravel’s plan to get the contents made public was to get them read into the congressional record. That would circumvent the problems associated with leaking them to the press. Gravel had already planned to filibuster a bill extending the mandatory military draft in America. He didn’t have enough votes to stop the draft, but he would wear his colleagues down by reading the contents of the papers. Thus, the information would be entered into the congressional record. He calculated that it would take him 30 hours to read just the pages which were essential. That would be longer than the record fillibuster of just over 24 hours by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1957.
He had no doubts about whether it was the right thing to do, but he did realize there were dangers. He feared that if the wrong people found out, the FBI would show up at his office and prevent him from getting to the Senate. He called a contact he knew with Disabled Vietnam Veterans Againt the War and explained his dilemma. Shortly thereafter the halls leading to his office were filled with wheelchair bound veterans of the war. They swore to him that for the FBI to get to him they would have to climb over the vets’ bodies in the hallway.
On a totally different note, he worried about a practical and sensitive matter: bodily functions. He remembered that Senator Huey Long would just urinate on the floor during his filibusters. Gravel did not want to be crude. Therefore before he made his way to the Senate floor he made an appointment to go by the office of the Senate doctor to receive an enema and then get a colostomy bag attached to his person. While he was reading the documents into the record, his chief aide could empty the contents of the bag by a valve attached to his ankle.
Plan A, as he called it, did not work. When he prepared to start the filibuster, he saw clerks and staff there, and he warned them they may need to call home and tell family members they would be late. Republican Senator Robert Griffin heard him and was immediately suspicious. He objected and successfully prevented Gravel from being given the floor on the grounds no quorum was present. Gravel was devastated.
Gravel thought he had lost his chance, but his chief aide came to the rescue with “Plan B.” Although Gravel was only a first term senator, Senator Ted Kennedy had arranged for him to have chairmanship of a sub-committee. Gravel said it was the least prestigious of any sub-committee in Washington: Buildings and Grounds. Gravel quickly arranged a meeting of said sub-committee. The committee meeting started that night at 9:45 p.m. Gravel was actually the only member there. He had arranged with his friend Congrssman John Dow to appear and make a request of Gravel’s committee: “I want to build a federal building in my district.” On cue, Gravel responded, “We have no money for that because of the war in Vietnam.” He then started reading the contents of the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record.
I won’t go over all of the repercussions of Ellsberg’s and Gravel’s actions. Gravel later said the strongest criticism that he received came from the fact that as he was reading how the soldiers and civilians were killed, how villages with children were destroyed, bodies were maimed, he began to well up in tears. Then the tears flowed down his face as he continued. Finally, he broke down. The news outlets–even the NY Times–were unanimous in their condemnation of him because no real man, especially a senator, should shame the U.S. Senate with such behavior.
Eventually, however, charges and threatened actions against Gravel were dropped. He served in the Senate until January of 1981. The last of the U.S. troops in Vietnam were pulled out in 1975, although a peace treaty was signed in 1973.
LESSONS FOR TODAY. One of the reasons I am writing a blog on the Pentagon Papers is because I fear critical lessons have not been learned. I also believe the powers in D.C. do not want people to remember this event and would prefer to continue doing business as usual. America has been fighting in Afghanistan since October of 2001. It is essentially this generation’s Vietnam. President Biden’s announcement that American troops are to be withdrawn by the twentieth anniversary (this fall) is still being met with strong criticisms from both Republicans and some Democrats. Members of the American military have been there killing and being killed and injured for twenty years, and it appears that nothing was accomplished. Well, unless you are in the business of selling weapons to the U.S. government that is.
I believe that government leaders in general still do not trust the people. I don’t need to read reports or articles contending that U.S. politicians lie about other countries and create fictional monsters of them. I’ve seen it first hand from living in Russia. I’ve communicated with other Americans in other countries who say the same thing. I don’t like what is said about Russia, but what America has done in Syria (and then lied about it), as well as the ramifications of their actions in Yemen, are horrible. There are other examples.
The misinformation being spread to the U.S. public by the media also continues. I claimed in my last blog that there are reporters or newscasters who know very little if anything about Russia, yet still feel free to inject their opinions as facts into their newscasts. Eva Karene Bartlett, who has lived in Palestine, Syria, and now Russia, recently interviewed veteran journalist Steve Kinzer, who has spent two decades traveling around the world to complile his reports. He describes the way journalism has changed from his time of reporting on places and events you were actually there to see and learn about, rather than simply communicating what you were told to write by some U.S. government apparatchik. https://www.rt.com/op-ed/527732-us-media-stephen-kinzer/?fbclid=IwAR2beWVT_lMrXaZzF_NtjcMS570HJ70467XZGlsS7BN_-Bg_x8wrccy1H3Q
As a positive aside, I also can claim I was right about something else I said in my last blog. I indicated that in my opinion many Americans no longer trust what the American media outlets tell them. I just read of a report done recently by The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on the topic of media trust in 49 countries. According to their study, America finished last of all 49 countries in terms of trusting their media. Only 29% of Americans say they trust their media for accurate information. In his article on this study, Jonathan Turley delves into the ways journalists and editors are shamed or even fired if they present any perspective that does not mesh with what the political and media movers and shakers have decided America needs to hear. Fortunately, many Americans are now seeing through the manipulation. http://ronpaulinstitute.org/archives/featured-articles/2021/june/26/report-united-states-ranks-last-in-media-trust/?fbclid=IwAR0PrOsesRROLE_AN3SukRkw5NHh_uHLr_X_ykHjUlimS7zehKSdv6ngrBI.
Then there are the cases against Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Snowden saw James Clapper lying to a Senate Select Committe on Intelligence and leaked the information that proved Clapper lied. Snowden is now in exile in Russia, and Clapper is still free and can still be seen on newscasts from time to time providing his unique insights. Julian Assange has been treated horribly for supposedly advising someone who leaked secret information. Assange didn’t even do any hacking and his life has been pretty much destroyed for his part advancing the truth about what Washington leaders were doing. At least Gravel and Ellsberg were vindicated and allowed freedom. Now those with the courage to release the truth in America get sent to prison or worse. The liars in government, on the other hand, are free to become news analysts. The way to advance your career now is, “Hear no evil, see no evil, and if you do see it, report that it is Russia’s fault.”
Finally, I wanted to write this article to honor Michael Gravel. As I said above he passed away this past week on June 26 just as some of us were revisiting what he did 50 years ago this month. There were a number of political issues I’m sure I disagreed with Gravel on. But America was never about agreeing on everything with everybody. The main thing was he hated war. He never lost sight of the fact that good people die in war—even if those wars actually have nothing to do with U.S. national security. That people in high places exploit the courage of these young people is a horrible facet of American politics. Gravel was not among the politicians Mike Lofgren described as shouting loudly at each other in front of the cameras and then going out for drinks together afterwards. Gravel acted on his revulsion at the meaningless wars with integrity and conviction.
Consortium News recently starting publishing excerpts from the book, A Political Odyssey, the book Gravel and Joe Lauria did on the events I have been describing. My wife came in while I was reading the first article. I started telling her about it, but then I just pushed my computer across the table and asked her to read it for herself. As she read, I saw tears start coming down. She said, “You mean…an American politician did that? So the people would know the truth???” I told her yes, there was a time when some American politicians were motivated by the desire to tell the truth and had the courage to act on convictions. I said, “You don’t get an enema and have a colostomy bag attached for political theater.” (For the first excerpt from Consortium News see https://consortiumnews.com/2021/06/21/revealing-the-pentagon-papers-in-congress/. You can find all the excerpts on their website.)
I say a lot of negative things about America. And while I have gotten some very kind and encouraging responses, I’ve gotten some from people who do not appreciate what they see as my lack of patriotism. Sometimes it hurts a bit; many times it triggers anger. In this view truly patriotic people only say good things about their country. But the bad responses I’ve gotten are NOTHING compared to what Mike Gravel and Daniel Ellsberg endured. In my opinion, they exhibited more patriotism than their cultured despisers could ever imagine. I honor them for doing what they did.